Some months ago, someone I really trust referred to my situation as “a tragedy.” I remember snapping at him, “no, it’s an opportunity.” We’ve been insisting that the accident and the resulting paralysis is only a tragedy if we make it that way, but now it seems that there’s something honest in what that much-trusted person said, this is a tragedy. It’s hell. We have been so praised for courage, for keeping on going, for heroism, for fortitude, for it seems practically every imaginable virtue that would be relevant in this situation. But sometimes we both know this praise isn’t really deserved. Sure, there’s something in you, something, Brooke says, even trivial stuff like about how a gentlemen ought to be able to keep a stiff upper lip, but when you’re lying there in the middle of the night, he also says, trying to make it through, you’d give anything to have a normal body--which you’ll never have again ever, ever in your life.
Brooke says he tries to think of all the people who’ve been decimated in wars, riddled with shrapnel, double, triple, quadruple amputees, people who are starving, people being tortured in prisons, people who are dying long, drawn-out horrible deaths in hospitals around the world. But it doesn’t help, not because they’re worse off, if they are (how can we compare these things?)—but because we have to admit that these are all tragedies. This isn’t meant to sound self-pitying, just factual. Of course it’s not only a tragedy; there are amazingly positive things too, as we’ve often said, about connectedness, depth, love. But the moments at 3:30 in the morning, when you know you’re not going to go back to sleep, or this morning when I woke up and saw how gray it was outside, when you realize how almost completely paralyzed you still are, these are moments when you’d just like to sleep forever. But then there are moments when you think that if we can just get through this and come out the other side, just get through it, manage to go places, you could really do things for people.
That person I trust, who has his own experience with spinal cord injury, said that it’s like this—you have an active day, then you have to recover for two days. It’s like that physically; it’s like that psychologically too.
What’s a tragedy? Macbeth is a tragedy, King Lear is a tragedy. They’re tragedies because of the moral failings of the hero; there are dead bodies strewn all over the stage, and only mediocre people are left at the end. I can’t claim that my situation is a tragedy of this sort; what happened to me is a terrible misfortune, but not a tragedy in the same sense. In that sense, I guess, I’m lucky. We can at least try to be honest about this.